A Practical Look at How to Prevent Employee Burnout
We’re all about the hustle. Rise and grind, baby. Nothing is impossible if you work hard enough … and yet, the bill comes due at the end. What’s the cost of neverending iterations and the endless escalation of success? When is enough accomplishment enough?
As the self-described South African mystic Mokokoma Mokhanoana says, “It takes wisdom to gain wealth without losing health.”
We’re all talking about mental health today. What is it? How do we keep it? How do we protect what’s best in humanity while pursuing greatness? And, as Makhoanoana asks, what are we sacrificing in our pursuit? Of course, to tackle mental health in the workplace, we have to start by addressing its nemesis — employee burnout.
You know it when you see it. Employees that are physically present but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually absent from the workplace.
De-motivation. Unproductivity. Anti-inspiration.
Existential angst, even.
We even have a name for its primary side-effect today — Quiet Quitting.
So, how do we build cultures of high-performing individuals, feast with them on improbable successes, and still nurture their psyches? How do we prevent employee burnout?
It starts by recognizing that employee burnout is real. And, it’s dangerous. When we can define the enemy of the good, we can more safely pursue the great. So, let’s start there.
What’s causing systemic burnout in the tech industry?
As modern philosophers Green Day said on their 1994 album Dookie, “I declare I don’t care no more, I’m burnin’ up and out and growing bored … And I stepped in line to walk amongst the dead … I’ll live inside this mental cave, throw my emotions in the grave and hell, who needs ‘em anyway?”
The heart of burnout is soul-level exhaustion. It’s chronic, unmitigated stress in all its myriad forms and factors. Long hours. Lack of support. Unfair treatment. Insufficient rewards. Lack of control. Lack of work-life balance. Lack of boundaries in a hybrid work-from-everywhere-all-the-time world gone mad.
Burnout is like momentum in athletics. Once you start sliding in the wrong direction, it’s culturally terminal. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of an ever-shrinking sense of accomplishment and an infinitely-diminishing personal identity. Nobody wants to be a cog. And yet, we feed our best people into the machine of corporate achievement without regard.
In 2019, the World Health Organization declared burnout to be an “occupational phenomenon” in their 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases.
And since then, it’s gone pandemic.
The American Institute of Stress recently said that job stress (AKA burnout) costs US companies $300B+ annually, with effects ranging from soft costs like absenteeism, diminished productivity, and turnover to direct medical, legal, and insurance expenses.
Business Insider cited a survey from the app Blind assessing that nearly 70% of tech industry employees are fighting burnout in a post-COVID world, and the numbers are rising. 1
Burnout kills morale, slaughters productivity, and breeds turnover. And, more often than not, employees themselves are left to clean up the mess. What can we do to prevent employee burnout from running rampant on our teams of subject matter experts and knowledge champions?
The cure is in the culture.
Somewhere in the fury and glory of 21st-century technological achievement, we lost our way. If we can understand how we got here, we can find a path home — a way back to the harmony of chasing our dreams while being at peace with ourselves and our peers. A vision of balance.
If burnout is caused by our perception of our workplace environment — unfair treatment, unmanageable workloads, unclear expectations, lack of support, and unreasonable timelines — then the remedy is found in re-balancing the workplace.
And brothers and sisters, we must be bold in our prescription.
Every startup talks about challenging the status quo, but they do exactly what their peers are doing because the risks are too high and the rewards too precious. Every tech company touts its hip counter-culture. But more often than not, none of that is real. And, it’s time to be real about rooting out toxicity in the tech workplace and replacing it with human-scaled interactions that allow each of us room to exist. Room to breathe. Room to excel.
10 rules for waging war on burnout in the workplace
1) Kill Rules for Rules’ Sake
We can all sniff out an arbitrary rule from a mile away. “Because I said so” isn’t how you manage grownups, and they resent it. If you’re going to take a stand, make it clear why an uncompromising stance benefits everyone involved.
2) Be Real About Little Things
We’re living in the era of authenticity. If it’s fake, everyone knows it. Your employees know whether your “newest cool thing” is rooted in actual human relationships or just more corporate gamesmanship.
3) Pay Attention to Workloads
The only thing employees pay more attention to than how hard they work is how hard their peers work. They know who’s sandbagging it. They’ll respect you more if they know you know.
4) Actually Reward Effort
Reward people in ways that mean something to them. For some, it’s all about cash money. For others, it’s public recognition. And for others, it’s opportunities. The basic human motivations that drive our lives don’t cease to exist in the workplace, so pay attention to what makes your people feel seen, heard, and appreciated.
5) Hold Management Accountable
There’s no faster path to burnout than working under middle-management who has too much authority and not enough competency. If you want your rank-and-file employees to stay engaged, hold their leaders to a standard worth respecting. (See the “Peter Principle” for more.)
6) Create Hard Work-Life Boundaries
Work-life balance is a nice buzzword, but it’s only as real as the boundaries that separate the two spheres. It’s a concept that’s increasingly hard to define in today’s WFH hybrid-workforce environment. Help your people create boundaries that protect them from burnout.
7) Get Outside
It’s true — nature heals. Whether that’s walking meetings, team field trips, or just cultivating an active lifestyle culture, sunshine cures a lot of the burnout blues. It might not always be productive, but it will always be effective.
8) Make Vacations Great Again
Time off should be just that. Getting out of the office is vital to maintaining mental health. Create a culture that genuinely respects and anticipates vacation, and you’ll set a brushfire to the looming burnout in your team.
9) Give People a Vision for Their Future
They need to know why they’re doing this. What’s next for them? Where will they be in five years? What’s possible if they truly commit to the company? Help them see the benefit, and they’ll manage their own inevitable risk-reward assessments much better along the way.
10) Care About Your People More than Your Profits
That’s it. You have to actually care. If you want people to become more than the proverbial cog in the machine, you have to believe that they’re worth more than their KPIs and quarterly numbers. You have to see them as individual humans and show them the respect that demands. They know whether it’s true or not, so don’t bullshit them.
It doesn’t matter how progressive your benefits are or how your work-hard-play-hard culture sells the image. It matters that you respect the value of each human on your team. At the end of the day, burnout is the psychological fatigue of questioning whether your contributions are valued, your ideas heard, or your efforts rewarded. You can’t fake an anti-burnout culture. But, you can build one, one day at a time. And when you do, it’s going to be a hell of a ride for everyone on your team. So, get after it.